It's that time of year again...
It's been a while since I did a reading roundup and it's the last day of 2019, so I figured - why not?
Long-time followers know that I am an avid reader. I try to hit at least 100 books read every year, which is normally not a problem for me. Last year I wanted to step it up to 110 books or more, but (un?)fortunately got derailed with a lot of special trips (more to come on those! keep checking here) that sucked up reading time so my total remains at 100.
So without further ado, here are the best of the 100 books I finished in 2019. It's important to note that these are not all books published in 2019 - it's the best of the books I read in 2019, several of which have been on my list for years. Hopefully you will find something great to add to your list here for 2020, whether or not it's new. And if you like this content, make sure to follow my Books page on Compendium and Goodreads to stay updated on my latest great reads.
Best History Book - Tie2019 seemed to be the year of non-fiction for me. For some reason I was drawn more than usual to richly researched books, and it was very hard to choose between the best of them. Both of these books enriched my understanding of world history and filled in massive gaps left by my sub-par American education on global history. Both are slower reads but highly worth reading.
A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green
This is the best single history of any part of Africa I've ever read and should honestly be taught in all schools. I picked it up after my month-long trip in West Africa because my overall knowledge of African history and cultures is so severely lacking - the only region we ever learned about in school was Egypt and even that was almost remedial - and I needed to have a more well rounded understanding of the world. This was the perfect book to fill in my gaps. It's impeccably sourced and researched but remains quite readable and includes lots of maps, charts and photos to help visualize the information. The author provides highly nuanced approaches towards gender history and politics, the true impact of colonialism and religious influence, and embraces a complexity that dazzled me.
I wish more history books were this thorough and honest; there is no cover up or one-sided perspective here. The insistence on depth enriches every chapter and leave you with a full 360 degree view of life in West Africa in the period of transition between the 15th and 18th centuries. Toby Green's approach to history by using currency to explain how slavery started and true impact it had in this region and globally is a brilliant idea, and I think this information should be taught in all American classrooms as a mandatory part of understanding why chattel slavery was different and how deeply it robbed an entire continent of its potential. If I could give this more than 5 stars I would. Highly, highly recommend.
I've heard this book so frequently mentioned by several highly successful folks on various podcasts and interviews as one of their favorites that I finally had to see what all the hype was about. What I got was a totally fascinating history that has completely changed much of my understanding of medieval Eurasian history. We hear so little (and certainly never positive) news of Mongols or Mongolia today, but the legacy left by Genghis Khan and his progeny, particularly Khubilai, is truly remarkable and deserves a much closer, fairer examination than it has often gotten. For example: did you know Genghis' empire was larger than all of North America combined and far, far larger than any other in history? He's the most successful empire builder to live past the age of 35 (dying at age 70). He introduced modern concepts like diverse leadership teams (always promoting on ability and intelligence, not by family relationship) and the first ever paper currency to strengthen his empire. His armies always included mobile engineering teams who would construct the infrastructure and weaponry needed for each specific voyage on-site as it was required, essentially a battalion of human 3D printers. They were also the first fighting force to successfully capture cities by traveling across frozen waterways. He was the first person to unify what is now India and China, and it's not impossible to think those nations would never have existed without his organizational influence.
If you're a history buff this is a must-read to enrich your understanding of world history and understand what short shrift the Khans have gotten over the years. It's not an apologia or a white wash - there were some highly violent, destructive acts taken by these armies and they are honestly depicted here - but that is only a tiny part of their story and the other side really deserves to be told. I found this completely fascinating and am recommending this book to people constantly.
Best Science Book - The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by Julie Des Jardins
This was an amazing read that will launch 1,000 more - there are so many incredible women scientists I learned about through this book who I otherwise would never have heard of. The long history of women's difficulty in entering scientific fields is well researched here; my only quibble is that I wish it was a little more diverse including a wider range of women of color. The book groups subjects roughly by era but also by scientific discipline, a theming which helps show the lineage between female scientists and how they were able to build upon each other (much like you might see "genealogies" of chefs, academics or other professional careers). Portions about women who were deliberately cut out of promotions, Nobel prizes, etc. were completely infuriating and I can't begin to imagine the scientific discoveries we lost as a result. It was really interesting to note the differences Jardins drew between the style of male and female scientists. Sometimes this could get a bit exaggerated, but I do think there's something to be said for a difference in approaches yielding different results. This is a great read for all lovers of narratives like Hidden Figures and discovering those whose vital contributions have been historically overlooked.
Best True Crime / Mystery - Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
I came across this book in an article about the Oklahoma! musical revival, threw it on my list for shits and giggles, and it completely blew me away. Killers of the Flower Moon has the same power of a Truman Capote, Jon Krakauer or Erik Larson kind of nonfiction; it's impossible to put down and almost as difficult to believe that its dark narrative is 100% true. I was shocked at how little of this history I knew and how violent it was. The contemporary American attitude towards Native Americans tends to be negative ("why aren't they over it yet?"), without recognizing how far the trauma committed against native peoples extends even into the present day. The events of this book take place well under 100 years ago and are shockingly evil, including deceptive marriages, poisoning and violent assault of people's spouses and own children, theft and worse. This book unwinds like a good mystery novel with plenty of suspects, moving targets, and unsolved mysteries that span decades. It's also a light history of the founding of the FBI, which is an event that I didn't know I needed to learn about and information I feel will be useful in the future. I highly recommend this, especially to fans of mystery or true crime books. It's another missing piece of American history that I've already called upon in the months since I read it.
Best Sports Book - Levels of the Game by John McPhee
I don't normally read sports books, but I'd seen this recommended by Tim Ferriss and others for years and finally got tired of hearing about it. Levels of the Game is surprisingly hard to find but it was so worth the wait. Everything said about this slender book is true: it is so much more than simply a sports story, and it really is one of the best pieces of short writing I've ever read, a true masterpiece of short form. I flew through the 150 pages or so in a single sitting and have been mentally chewing on it ever since.
At surface level this is just a gripping play-by-play of a legendary tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Charles Graebner; however, I quickly learned there is so much more packed in here. Deep character studies and biographies of both contestants are seamlessly interwoven throughout the match, and through them a window in to the wider issues of mid-20th century (and, I would argue, contemporary) America. The intense focus and detail here manages to make a brilliant case study of polar opposites of American privilege, racism, regional discrimination, classicism, religion, culture and so much more. It's truly a study in contrasts and had Graebner and Ashe not been teammates playing for Team U.S. in an international competition at the same time this match occurred, I think this match would have become as famous as Billie Jean King's "Battle of the Sexes" but in a racial context.
This book is truly fascinating, even for those who don't like sports very much, and if for no other reason it's worth a read for the truly excellent prose. I am still astonished at the mountains of detail John McPhee packs into clean, simple but elegant language in well under 200 pages - it's a masterpiece of construction and I am definitely striving to achieve his economic, elegaic style in my own writing.
Immigration seems to be the issue of our times and there is no better book to read to understand this issue than Dear America. Something that gets lost in all the numbers and statistics on either side of the immigration debate is the vital understanding that these are not things we are talking about - they are people who have thoughts, feelings, needs and rights. There is so much nuance lost in the soundbite-driven conversations by talking heads on cable news, and people's lives are hanging in the balance.
This book has the perfect levity between personal memoir experience and hard data. As a former reporter for the Washington Post, Vargas is no slouch with his research, and all the data here can be backed up. Whichever side of the immigration debate you're on, I'd highly encourage you to pick up Dear America and gain some core understanding of this issue from someone who knows it most intimately. I suspect it's going to continue to be vital knowledge to have, especially as our economy continues to evolve. This is a must-read for every American citizen and I'd recommend it to any demographic.
Best Book About Women: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
Say what you want about GOOP: I was turned on to Mary Beard through GOOP's podcast and if I get nothing else out of it, it was fully worth it. This stunning, perfectly concise text analyzes the place and perception of women in Western society stemming back to the classical age (aka Greeks and Romans) and it is a fascinating look at texts like The Odyssey that so many of us have read (but this time with totally fresh eyes). I think most of us are aware by now how deeply rooted sexism is, but I also think we do not always see how explicitly and intentionally grounded that sexism is all the way back to our earliest cultural myths. Beard utilizes several delightful contemporary examples to apply her theories, and I blew through this in barely over an hour. Highly recommend this for all readers - it's got deep things to say in an easily accessible package and will really blow your mind with some of her examples.
Best African Lit / Locally Published Work: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
I have been reading a huge amount of work by African writers over the last few years, so when I saw that Minneapolis publisher Graywolf Press was releasing this I had to snap it up right away. This book was so good. It is truly diasporic and managed to weave three totally different character's plot lines seamlessly together, making it a story that people of many different identities could engage with. Structurally it is reminiscent of Yaa Gyaasi's transcendent novel Homegoing, although this has more complexity and narrative threads to weave together and a spicy dose of Marvel's Luke Cage to keep it modern. It felt to me like modern African superhero magical realism, with a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wakanda and Marlon James all mixed together. It makes for a really fresh combo and I was deeply pulled into this narrative; it was hard to believe that this was Moore's debut novel and this book packs a lot of plot into 300 short pages. If you're into mystical fantasy / historical fiction, this is definitely one you should pick up.
I fell in love with Balli Kaur Jaswal after reading Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows, which I saw on a Reese's Book Club pick. This book (her second) solidifies her as one of my favorite new authors. This has all the touristic charm of stories like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but without the colonial gaze. Jaswal is so expert at having honest conversations about issues directly affecting women but packaging it into a treacly beach read text, which is stunningly difficult and achieved here with ease. Topics covered here include sexual assault, abortion, arranged marriage, immigration, sexism, Punjabi culture, and more - which sounds heavy but I promise that Shergill Sisters was one of the most fun reads I had all year. I flew through this book and could easily have devoured a whole series.
Best Fantasy: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I'm always looking for new fantasy fiction and I couldn't have been more thrilled with this one. I know almost nothing about Mayan civilization and mythology, something I am actively working to rectify. I found dipping into this new world really fascinating, especially with the complexity it treats death. It's a thrilling fantasy tale but also romantic and uniquely empathetic in a way I haven't seen in similar books; the author makes a point of prioritizing compassion and grace even in the characters with the darkest and most twisted motivations. This is a complete world on its own (lots packed into just over 300 pages!), but I could easily see it becoming a detailed series. It's like American Gods meets Akata Witch, but Mexican / Mayan style. Highly recommend to fantasy / mythology lovers who want something unique and new to read.
Best Children's Book - TieI read a lot of children's literature this year. I know some people consider children's books not to be "real" literature or cheating for book counts, but hear me out: anyone who has attempted writing projects knows that writing more concisely is actually harder than providing length. Being able to communicate a full story in 50 pages or less with short, easy to pronounce words that can entertain grownups and kids alike is no easy task. Thankfully there are some fantastic new arrivals to the children's lit scene that you and the kiddos in your life can equally enjoy.
I threw this on my to-read list the second I heard Lupita Nyong'o was writing a book and so was one of the very first to get this from the library. Let me tell you - it lives up to all of the hype and more. The illustrations are luminous, seemingly glowing off the page, and are totally captivating with rich, full hues. The story is extremely affecting and you can tell how personal it was for Nyong'o to write. I had teary eyes only a few pages in, and the beautiful resolution will put a real warmth in your heart.
This is intended to speak to kids who are feeling downtrodden about their dark skin, but I actually think it's a good book for all kids to help soften assumptions / answer questions about skin color differences. Reading something like this at a young age would have helped introduce ideas of racial awareness to me at a foundational level that would have really served me later in my adult life, and I'm so glad it exists for kids now. I want this book to get ultimate support for the simple message (and to support Nyong'o, of course), but it's also just a very high quality, beautifully illustrated children's book that is among the year's best. Highly recommend for grownups and kiddos alike.
This made the rounds on a bunch of best-of lists for children's books last year, and I found it really delightful. It's a simple book but one that beautifully shows how to accept and even celebrate people who present differently. I've always loved the term mermaid for trans / queer people and this book makes it even prettier. The centering of black and brown bodies in this story is also special and a beautiful celebration of diverse life.
In the debate around trans and LGBTQIA rights, one of the first questions raised is always "well what do I tell my children?" A book like this gives an easy answer: just tell them the truth. Kids are far more open minded and accepting than they get credit for, and I'm so glad that books like this exist to make the conversation easy for all parties. This is appropriate for kids of any age but especially ages 3 - 8 or so and definitely is a good tool for helping to explain the existence of queer / trans people if a child is asking about it. The colorful illustrations are also a top selling point.
Best Fairy Tale Re-mix: Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is a perennial fave and the second I heard she had re-imagined a fairy tale I had to check it out. There's a lot to recommend this book, Solnit's feminist re-imagining of Cinderella among them, but the real standout to me were the stunningly gorgeous die-cut illustrations. Every image is portrayed through intricately cut silhouettes and it's a lovely way to tell the story. I almost wish this were a picture-only book, just to have more delicate illustrations to enjoy. This is probably best enjoyed by grownups or older kids (I'd say age 8 and up?) to get the full effect.